Recently, an article in the Kansas City Star reported that the cost of the city’s two-mile streetcar line is par for the course among streetcars. The mayor is quoted as saying that those who claim Kansas City’s plan is the most expensive in the country are talking “nonsense.” But whether or not it holds first place, Kansas City’s streetcar will be extremely costly.
According to the Star, the cost of Kansas City’s streetcar is comparable to similar projects in cities like Tucson, Seattle, Cincinnati, and Portland. The paper got their “data” from the Community Streetcar Coalition, which is a pro-streetcar lobbying organization (of which the city of Kansas City and KCATA are members), not a research group.
In dissecting the numbers, the first thing to note is that streetcars are virtually all incredibly expensive for the level of service they provide. That service is comparable to a short bus route, yet they are often an order of magnitude more expensive. That being said, the Star’s claims on the relative expense of the Kansas City streetcar are disputed. According to a report by AECOM (an architectural consulting firm), Kansas City’s streetcar system is more expensive per mile than Tucson, Seattle, and Cincinnati. Furthermore, the system is much more expensive per mile than many “vintage” streetcar lines like the Loop Trolley in Saint Louis, as the following chart demonstrates:
Total Cost (Millions)*
Cost per Mile (Millions)*
Of course, there are different ways of estimating cost per mile, and (being custom projects) no streetcar system is exactly alike. Asking which streetcar has the highest cost per mile is akin to identifying the most costly SUV on the market given factors like gas mileage, amenities, and dealer warranties. However, arguing the Kansas City streetcar is not the most expensive streetcar out there is a little like saying the Escalade is a better value than the Land Rover. It’s an expensive luxury, whether or not it’s the most expensive luxury.
When Kansas City planned its streetcar, it did not plan a cost-effective transportation system. Instead, it opted for an expensive status symbol designed to move money, not people. And while its costs may be comparable to similar vanity projects in other cities, that in no way indicates shrewd spending by Kansas City planners.